“Good Bones” Maggie Smith

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“Lit Windows Painting Yellow Rothkos on the Water”

good bones

Late to the party (per usual), I found Maggie Smith’s poetry collection, Good Bones. Reading it, I found themes that resonated with me, especially the fascination with time and how it manifests in the form of poems touching on past, present, and future. Other topics she dwells on include childhood, motherhood, marriage, nature, and love.

For a representative piece, I give you “Twentieth Century,” which originally appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review. Like most centuries (thanks to humans), the Twentieth was pretty ugly, but memory plays interesting tricks, chief among them the propensity to sift out bad and magnify good. Maybe it’s a survival instinct.

See what happens when Smith personifies the Twentieth Century, directly addressing it. The poem has a confessional tone, almost like something out of a diary, something intended for the author’s eyes only but found by another reader, who can’t help but read it.

Twentieth Century
Maggie Smith

I must have missed the last train out of this gray city.
I’m scrolling the radio through shhhhhh. The streetlamps

fill with light, right on time, but no one is pouring it in.
Twentieth Century, you’re gone. You’re tucked into

a sleeping car, rolling to god-knows-where, and I’m
lonely for you. I know it’s naïve. But your horrors

were far away, and I thought I could stand them.
Twentieth Century, we had a good life more or less,

didn’t we? You made me. You wove the long braid
down my back. You kissed me in the snowy street

with everyone watching. You opened your mouth a little
and it scared me. Twentieth Century, it’s me, it’s me.

You said that to me once, as if I’d forgotten your face.
You strung me out until trees seemed to breathe,

expanding and contracting. You played “American Girl”
and turned it up loud. You said I was untouchable.

Do you remember the nights at Alum Creek, the lit
windows painting yellow Rothkos on the water?

Are they still there, or did you take them with you?
Say something. I’m here, waiting, scrolling the radio.

On every frequency, someone hushes me. Is it you?
Twentieth Century, are you there? I thought you were

a simpler time. I thought we’d live on a mountain
together, drinking melted snow, carving hawk totems

from downed pines. We’d never come back. Twentieth
Century, I was in so deep, I couldn’t see an end to you.

Truth is, everything is “a simpler time” when it has the advantage of living in the past. In the wrong hands, this can even be used for nefarious purposes (think: “Make America Great Again”). But in the right hands, it can strike a wistful tone illustrated by a montage of realistic images. Kisses in a snowy street. Opening the mouth a little. Lit windows painting “yellow Rothkos on the water.”

If you, too, are a product of the Twentieth Century, what belongs to the speaker becomes partly yours. Because the century of your birth is capable of two-timing more than one person.

Thus the appeal of poetry — how it is individual yet universal at the same time.

Selling the World to Children: Not for the Faint of Heart

The poem “Good Bones” was included in the “Best of 2017” series last year, but author Maggie Smith had the foresight to make it ring true no matter what the year.

Therefore, as we approach the blessed end to 2018, we can count it a “best” again if we wish. After all, the word “best” is up for grabs, yours to throw around with no regard for lamps and other fragile items in the room as much as mine. The poem originally appeared in Waxwing:


“Good Bones”
by Maggie Smith

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.


I love the ending. That false note of hope sung loud and proud in a key of despair. So true. So ring out the old and ring in the new.

For more of the same….

The Problem with “Best” Poems

Let’s start with the judging-by-the-cover. The color is green-awful, giving perfectly delicious pea soup a bad name. And the chair. I’m not sure I would fancy the chair, for fear of turning into a fern before page 12 (were I to sit in it, and I would not).

That said, I’m sure Natasha Trethewey, guest-editor for Year of Our Lord 2017, had nothing to do with this cover. Nor did David Lehman (whoever he is), series editor. Sometimes covers just happen. Like Heaven’s Gate in the movies.

Every review of the “Best” series sings the same song: “Unevenly As She Goes.” Me, I like to see what poetry publications the poems are plucked from for future reference. The thinking goes like this: “Golly. Maybe if I send poems to the same publications, THEY’LL be selected as the best among American poems (2018, 2019, what have you) too!”

But it’s like chasing yesterday’s hot stock. Next year’s guest editor may have a yen for very different poetry publications, though you can always count on a few big boppers like Poetry, of course, and The New Yorker.

Among my faves in this collection: “Higher Education” (Jeffrey Harrison), “Certain Things” (David Brendan Hopes), “The Watch” (Danusha Laméris), “The Mercy Home” (Michael Ryan), “Seeing Things” (Charles Simic), “Good Bones” (Maggie Smith), and “Afraid to Pray” (Pamela Sutton).

There. Flip through to these next time you’re at the bookstore. It will be one man’s “best of the best” and equally uneven, proving the futility of the whole process of choosing the best. Or the best of the best. Or the best of the best of the best.

I best stop here. But first, a link to the Charles Simic poem, “Seeing Things.” Simple. Straightforward. However…. My kind of poem.